The mistreatment of police vehicles

One might have thought that in a discipline-driven  organization like the Guyana Police Force (GPF) it would be unnecessary for the subject Minister to have to ‘reach in,’ so to speak and to publicly declare that policemen (and women) responsible for damage to the Force’s vehicles in circumstances that can reasonably be deemed to be the result of their own recklessness/carelessness would have to go into their pockets to pay for the damage. You might think too that the care and protection of state property would be a doctrine embedded in the training that policemen and women receive and that the discipline associated with the training in ‘defensive driving’ in which, we are told, those who operate police vehicles are oriented, would remain with them (or at least most of them) in the course of their pursuit of ‘service and protection.’ 

That, it seems, is far from the case.  In December last year, as the Guyana Police Force (GPF) was rolling out its 50-odd new pickup vehicles, part of a multi-million-dollar gift from the Government of the People’s Republic of China, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan read a widely-circulated ‘riot act,’ essentially letting it be known that where it was established that damage to one of the pickups or other vehicles could reasonably be attributed to operator fault then he or she would be held to account to the extent of having to ‘fork out’ to fix the damage.

 Unfortunately, given what we know about the track record of state-run institutions, including government ministries, for the care and preservation of state property, one wonders just how seriously Minister Ramjattan’s warning would have been taken anyway. After all – and setting aside the embedded culture of absence of mindfulness for caring state property- state institutions are notorious for reading ‘riot acts’ threatening penalties against transgressors for one infraction or another, only to have those threats disappear as swiftly as they had been made in the first place, a reflection of the chronic indifference to good management practice which, again, is prevalent in the public service.   So that viewed within the accustomed ‘easy come, easy go’ culture that has long been applied to the management of state-owned vehicles and other resources, it would not have been in the least surprising if, at the outset, few people took  Mr. Ramjattan’s pronouncement about vehicle operators paying for damage seriously. 

After all, who amongst us with some degree of familiarity with the ways of the public service are not familiar with the historic abuse to which state-owned vehicles are treated and with their all too frequent discreet ‘writing off’ when sustained abuse finally renders them unserviceable. It is, as well, a matter of public awareness that the compounds of some Police Stations (and other state-run agencies) often serve as ‘graveyards’ for ‘condemned’ vehicles until their eyesore element gives rise to official urging that they be removed to some other final resting place.

There is a widespread familiarity with the times when the Force was in such dire straits insofar as the availability of vehicles was concerned that this particular limitation had become a critical obstacle to effective crime-fighting. You would have had to be doing a persuasive impression of Rip Van Winkle over the past decade and more if you had not heard stories of private vehicles having to be pressed into service in support of crime-fighting operations.

The peculiar thing about the practice of indifference to the importance of prudent management of state property, notably vehicles in the instance of the GPF, is that the shortcoming is reflective of a mind-boggling indifference to that very rule which the Force is sworn to enforce, not least, indifference to basic traffic regulations. It is a line of ‘logic’ that is driven by the absurd  notion that those whose job it is to enforce the law have a corresponding prerogative to break it.

  It was not too long after the vehicles gifted to the Force had been ‘commissioned’ and put into service that one began to observe ‘fender bender’ types of accidents involving some of these vehicles that came and went without anyone paying a great deal of attention to them. It is true that the nature of policing raises the likelihood of vehicles being placed in situations where accidents, even serious ones, can and will happen. On the other hand even the Force itself has had reason to bemoan the fact that many of its own drivers are indifferent to the ground rules of ‘defensive driving’ which is a part of their training. Police vehicles ‘turning turtle,’ for example, in circumstances of a seeming absence of any real emergency is hardly excusable even though, from all that we have been told, there is hardly ever a shortage of ‘good excuses’ when such mishaps occur.

Training in defensive driving, is not, for example, reflected in the huge risks that inhere in police pickups hurtling down the East Coast railway embankment at peak hours, (taking prisoners from the Lusignan lockups to the Courts in the city, we understand) literally forcing other vehicles off the road and further threatening the already tenuous sense of order that exists on the embankment during the morning rush hour and made worse by the indifference of some motorists to the west to east one-way traffic restriction on a section of the embankment that extends up to 9:00 hrs. 

If, therefore, one can understand the motivation behind Minister Ramjattan’s urging that care be taken in the use of police vehicles, (or that if you are reckless/careless you pay for the damage) that appeal has to be seen in the context of an historic mindset on the part of some police drivers that leads them to arrogate to themselves the prerogative of cynical road use transgressions as a matter or right; so that even if there are surcharge-related penalties accruing to those drivers who damage vehicles, one assumes  a case must be made out before judgement is passed. Here again given the particular nature of police work and the circumstances that can arise, it may frequently not be easy to make a case for surcharging the driver. In effect, Minister Ramjattan is hoping, it seems, to change an embedded behavioural norm rather with the threat of surcharge serving as  a deterrent rather than a penalty that would have to be enforced. 

 Still, the information that has reached us is that Minister Ramjattan has been able to extract some measure of traction, although not, perhaps, in the manner that he might have hoped.  Some monies, though we understand, not anywhere near the cumulative cost to the damaged vehicles, has up to this time, been paid. That alone will probably not do, however,  It is in the nature of some people to have less regard for property which is not directly linked to their own sacrifice and over time, if the regime of repayment is not enforced and strictly overseen, the culture of abuse will persist and creative ways will evolve of evading surcharges when vehicles are damaged or destroyed even as the sense of callous detachment of the transgressors from any sense of ownership and by extension any sense of loss or hardship, persists. That is simply the way it works. One would like to think though, that Minister Ramjattan would have wished to see a circumstance in which more responsible use of vehicles would have rendered the surcharge threat redundant, particularly given policemen’s decidedly modest earnings. That is what, ideally, the leadership of the Force should aim for.

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